World Atheist Convention: Day 2 (Super, Super Late Edition)

As I haven’t been blogging for months, I completely missed the fact that I never actually posted this piece. While it’s remarkably out of date (back in June for cripes’ sake!) it’s still got enough content in it that I can’t leave it sitting in my drafts. Enjoy!

[08/06/2011]
Unfortunately due to a lack of internet access and other things during the weekend I wasn’t able to keep hugely up to date with blog posts on the conference and I also missed the early sessions on Sunday morning, which is a shame as I missed the awesome Maryam Namazie who I hear was on form as ever, but I’m here to add my voice to the many others reporting from the event.

So, Day 2 got off to a great start on the issue of Secular Education. Jane Donnelly (of Atheist Ireland) began the session (as far as I know, I was maybe 5 minutes late in the door) with a resoundingly sickening report of the state of religious influence over the day to day schooling of Irish children. It would seem that for parents who don’t want their children indoctrinated into the Catholic faith (by virtue of the fact that the Catholic school is only school in their vicinity) the Catholic church preaches “choice” and the ability to “opt-out” but as Jane mentioned, not only are parents sick of opting out and want to “opt-in” to positive choices but the “choice” the Catholic church proclaims is entirely not practicable. The Irish education system, where Catholic schools are concerned (which is 95% of over 3,000 primary schools nationwide), involves an “integrated curriculum” where the Catholic faith is infused into every hour of the school day. So, when parents are given the choice to “opt-out” they must choose the parts of each individual subject throughout the day they would like their child to “opt-out” of, which, as Jane pointed out, would involve being camped outside the school gates for the entire school day.

Thomas Prosser, a Trinity College Dublin lecturer and sometime Guardian newspaper writer, then chimed in on the topic with two potential choices, convince the State to prevent the teaching of certain doctrines, which to my mind is rather impractical in “holy Ireland” OR asking the government to conduct research and offer “non-legally binding guidelines” on what children should or not be taught regarding religious doctrines throughout the school day.

Annie-Laurie Gaylor of the US-based Freedom From Religion Foundation discussed the issue of Religion in the US education system, describing the issue of prayers in schools which were banned in 1962 but are still practiced illegally in certain states and cities. She also mentioned a recent case the FFRF had been contacted about regarding a child in Kindergarden (pre-Primary school) whose teacher had been getting the children to sing the Johnny Appleseed song which has multiple references to “the Lord”. She also mentioned that the banning of public prayer and Bible-reading in US classrooms had it’s roots in Catholic campaigns in the late 1800s and early 1900s to prevent the reading of other versions of the bible than the main approved Catholic version. Irony, much?

Then the floor was turned over to the audience for comments and/or questions. The first comment raised was regarding “pilot schools” in Ireland which are run by a group called Educate Together, which is a multi-denominational group which the State has approved for “patronage” of Irish primary schools (and apparently, based on other comments during the panel, they have recently been accepted as patrons of second-level schools) which means that they can act as the governing body for the school and can direct the curriculum. The issue however is that it has been found that in the Religious Education parts of the curriculum these Educate Together schools, which are supposed to be truly multi-denominational and NOT be faith-forming in any way for any faith, the children are given a general R.E. lesson and then split up into Monotheistic children and Polytheistic/Nontheistic children, the former are told to practice prayers etc… and the latter are told to “reflect on the lesson”.

Another comment mentioned the Irish President’s recent comments to “cherish the children of Ireland equally”, a claim that cannot be taken seriously in light of the fact that non-Catholic children in Ireland are given very little choices outside of to simply conform and pretend to be one of the majority. An additional commenter spoke about his experience going through the Irish education system and how, from his understanding, the officials marking exams tend to have rather strict guidelines to follow in marking correct answers and reject that which doesn’t fall neatly into any one pre-prepared answer and he drew the comparison that this kind of thinking could be part of what leads to the adoption of rigid, unwavering dogma when it comes to religion in Irish schools.

The next panel we had was entitled “Speaking out against Blasphemy Laws” and featured Michael Nugent of Atheist Ireland, Anne Marie Waters of One Law For All (a group campaigning against Sharia law in the UK) and David Nash who is a historian who gave evidence to the UK government on the issue of Blasphemy in the run-up to the repeal of the British law regarding Blasphemy last year. Michael opened with a discussion of the currently applicable Blasphemy Law in Ireland, describing it’s inception, it’s reception and it’s wording. I’ve previously discussed this Law so I won’t bore you with the details. Suffice it to say, it’s a ridiculous law, badly worded, poorly conceived, anachronistic and dangerous. Also, it was written to be unenforceable. No, seriously, the Irish government decided it was so important to have a law against Blasphemy that the Minister for Justice at the time decided that it should be impossible to ever prosecute someone under said law. I know, right?

Anyhow then Anne Marie Waters spoke about the issue of Blasphemy as it pertains to non-Western countries where the crime entails punishments that primarily involve death or dismemberment. Mostly death. Grisly death. She spoke about the crime under Sharia law and how she views Blasphemy laws as primarily put in place to preserve the power structure and prevent and silence dissent and questioning. She made the great point that “Democracy means religious practice, Theocracy means nothing but religious practice.” It’s also worth noting that she was rather exercised by the topic and her passionate denouncements of Sharia felt most welcome.

David Nash then laid out the history of the crime of Blasphemy from it’s roots in early medieval society as a way to protect the community from Divine Retribution, the Enlightenment then came along and kind of cleared that away for a while, but now in modern times we seem to be seeing a resurgence of this fear and this seems to be driving some of the push for crimes of Blasphemy and Defamation of Religion around the world. He spelled out 7 things that he finds regularly cropping up when Blasphemy laws are involved, however I missed most of them in my hurried scribbling so I’ll just mention the main point he seemed to re-iterate a few times, that we should be very careful when governments move to repeal current Blasphemy legislation but try and push some form of Defamation of Religion or amended Hate Speech laws on the public in place of the Blasphemy law. This was something he mentioned he found common. He also mentioned near the beginning of his piece that the Irish Blasphemy law looked as if it had been “cobbled together” in a back room somewhere “on the back of an envelope”. Lastly he noted that Blasphemy is not something that is a throw-back to the past any more, as issues of Blasphemy in the very recent past have made mention of the fact that Ireland, in the 21st Century, feels that Blasphemy is an important issue.

When it came to Q&A I had a question of my own so my hand was busy being raised so I didn’t catch many of the other comments but I asked the panel if I was correct in assuming that the Irish Blasphemy law is unique in Western legal structures as being possibly the only law where the defendant must prove themselves innocent of the crime, instead of being presumed innocent and the burden of proving their guilt resting on the prosecution. David Nash addressed the question and said quite probably yes. The main message I took from the other comments and responses was that it seems ridiculous that one species of belief should merit protection where others do not.

After a pleasant lunch break and time to mingle with the other attendees and some of the speakers we reconvened to hear PZ Myers keynote speech. PZ advised us that since he was due to speak in Dublin and then fairly soon after in the UK that he had asked the Atheist Ireland organisers of the convention whether he should give the “ranty” talk he had prepared or the “boring, scientific, Evo-Devo” talk he had also prepared. He was solidly advised to give the “ranty” one, much to our delight! He began with a discussion of the recent Rapture/Camping debacle (which I regrettably failed to blog about, but enjoyed the humour of immensely) and advised that in light of no physical Rapture having had occurred it was now the case that an “invisible Rapture” of the soul had occurred and we are still on track to the end of the world sometime in October. Most likely an invisible one he suggested. He then went on to say that despite all the horrible issues of people being conned into giving Camping and his ilk all their money Camping is worth ignoring because he is a very minor kind of douchebag. He also spoke about how the Catholic Church denied the Rapture as it wasn’t an accurate Biblical interpretation and yet at the same time they insist that Adam and Eve were physically real people. Linking to that he mentioned that a lot of moderate Christians shied away from the Rapture as if to say “oh no, I’m not that [pointing to Camping] crazy” and yet they still maintain that Jesus Christ is their personal saviour. He then outlined a kind of a spectrum where “bat shit insane” people like Ken Ham were on the far right of the spectrum with people like Camping etc… and these kind of people have Rocks in their heads and are of significant concern to the rest of us. Moving further to the left the rocks turn more porous until you reach the far left where people like moderate Christians have sponges in their heads and these people are less of a concern, but still a problem because “[he] want[s] brains in people’s heads!”

With all that said, he pointed out that he could totally sympathise with accomodationists who want to be friends with the Sponges but not the Rocks. To illustrate this point, he told a “parable” whereby himself and some friends were hiking in their younger days in the western US across dry prairie-type terrain when they came upon a skunk. The skunk sprayed them all rather accurately in the face and so they had to find some sort of way to arrest the pungent odour and burning sensation of having been sprayed. Since they were in rather dry terrain the only water they could find was a “cowpond” which he described as a small area of water used, in many interesting an foul ways, by cattle which features about a foot of stagnant disgusting water and another three feet of sludgy gunk and poop. In their rush to wash away the skunk they simply dived into the cowpond. He drew the comparison that like himself and his friends accomodationists simply cover themselves desperately in bullshit to mask the stink of religion. Much as we wouldn’t accept water being served to us with a tiny pellet of poop and we wouldn’t be accepting of a slightly smaller pellet of poop in said water in place of the water we sent back so we shouldn’t accept any amount of bullshit in our campaign against insane beliefs. He then went on to say that he has often been accused of being too happy compared to the older atheists such as Nietzsche and Sartre

My favourite quote from PZ was “butt-fuck insane” (in relation to Harold Camping).

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